Monday, November 30, 2015

Greenway Finally Lights the Lamp

As a hockey player, BU freshman Jordan Greenway screams potential. The 6'5" power forward was scooped up by the Minnesota Wild with the 50th pick last spring, and he may not make it to his junior year on Commonwealth Avenue before he takes his inevitable spot in The Show. Of the five BU games I've seen this year, he has been impossible to miss with his lengthy possessions down along the attacking goal line, fending off defensemen and angling toward the net. Scouts more often than not volunteer that he is the most impressive player on the ice. Yet heading into Saturday's game against Cornell at Madison Square Garden, he had yet to score single collegiate goal. Oh-for-thirteen. Oh...

Two hours before puck drop he was walking briskly eastbound on West 33rd street in Manhattan, a guy who resembled a member of the NBA New York Knicks, except that he was carrying two extra long hockey sticks. Five minutes later he had circled back and was in the employees entrance of Madison Square Garden, heading for the elevator and his BU locker room. I told him that I had missed the Bentley game, and asked him if he had scored yet. He said no, but smiled, and agreed that tonight was the night, here in the world's most famous arena. It was a great story line. We diverged as the 18 year old took the elevator to the fifth floor while I curled around the corridors to walk up the elephant ramp.

True to his word, Greenway nailed home his inaugural goal, from the top of the crease, and got flattened for his efforts. It was the tying goal, late in the contest, and was a big factor in BU capturing the Red Hot Hockey championship trophy.

Somewhere around midnight he told Judy Cohen of BU's student paper "Just getting my first goal here, get the monkey off my back, a moment of relief. I just really wanted to help my team get the victory." It's fitting that this elite pro prospect scored his first NCAA goal in an NHL building, in exactly the style that the Minnesota Wild expect from him: a three-foot rebound from the dirtiest spot on the ice. There are certain to be a lot more where that came from.

A Giant's Farewell to Boston

Maize and Blue and Red All Over
Even as he approaches his 76th birthday, Red Berenson stands taller than his officially listed height of six feet flat. For two days in November he resembled a Lutheran minister in his dark suit, striding around Agganis Arena during Michigan’s series with Boston University, austere after his Wolverines coughed up a late lead in the opener, and still unsmiling after his club dismantled BU in the finale. He didn’t know, or seemingly care, that this was his club’s first win at Agganis Arena in five tries. In the last year of his coaching contract with Michigan, this could have been his final press gathering in Boston. In the closing parry, Red was asked what he thought of Boston as a hockey town, and the legendary man finally softened. For all his amazing feats and historic accomplishments, Berenson’s greatest talent might be his storytelling.

“I played my first game in Boston Gardens, it was my first pro game in March of ’62, and that was my first taste of Boston, it was only the first day after St. Patrick’s Day, so it was REALLY Boston.” The presser was wrapping up but Red wasn’t through talking. “The games we played out here have been big games, the national championship game against Boston College in 1998, that was a great environment at the Fleet Center. We played in the old BU rink, and so on. We played on a lot of buildings here, but we love coming to Boston, the competition is good, the teams are good, they’ve always had good coaches.” Red was now being escorted out of the room, toward the team bus, but he wanted to acknowledge the college coaching greats from the Hub. “I remember Len Ceglarski, and Jackie Parker.” His voice trailed off, and he was gone, maybe forever. This required a follow up call to this living legend, a man whose first-hand experience of hockey’s history gives him a Forest Gump-like magic: he has been everywhere in seemingly every era. Although he never played or coached for a Boston team, Red Berenson will always be connected to the city’s hockey history, weaved into the fabric of some of its biggest events. His first taste of professional hockey came the same day he played his last game for Michigan at the 1962 Frozen Four in Utica, NY.

NHL debut at the old Garden
“We jumped in the car and we drove from Troy, NY to Boston and it was a zoo. Like an absolute zoo by the old Gardens because the Celtics had just played that night and they were just coming out of the game, and it was St. Patrick’s Day, it was a zoo. And here I am just a red-neck kid from Saskatchewan going into a city like Boston. And the Madison hotel was next to the Gardens, that’s where all the visiting teams stayed, so that’s where we stayed. And we went upstairs, and we got a room, and then we sat down and we negotiated a contract, me and the assistant manager. I remember telling him ‘I want twenty thousand dollars over two years,’ and he said “$20K? We’ve never paid anybody that much.’ And the average in the NHL was about $9,000. And the minimum was about $7000. I guess the top player in the league might have been making $20,000. Or 25, Gordie Howe or Rocket Richard. So anyway, I got my $20,000. over two years, including a signing bonus, and the next night I played for Montreal, and it was great. I remember sitting in the locker room in the old Garden. They had the visitor’s locker painted black, and it was just like a cave in there. And they had radiators, you know the old radiators? They had ’em against the wall and they were sticking out. So the rookies had to sit against the radiators, it was so hot. I remember looking around at the room and saying ‘Holy…this is unbelievable. You know, Beliveau, and Boom Boom Geoffrion and Henri Richard, Jacques Plante. And they were great to me. So it was a big thrill, I’ll never forget that game. “

“I was playing for the Rangers in his rookie year. We’d heard all this hype about this one player who was supposed to be so good at age 18. And Harry Howell was our veteran defenseman, I think he had won the Norris trophy the previous year. So there was some talk about, there was no way this kid could be that good. I mean Harry Howell won the Norris Trophy. After the first period we were looking around at each other and somebody said to Harry, ‘Harry, forget about the Norris Trophy. You’re never going to win that again.’ This is after one period in Boston against Orr his rookie year.” 

Mother’s Day, 1970. Overtime
“I remember trying to poke the puck past Orr, and he kept it in or I would have had a breakaway, and he kept it in and then he went down low and passed it down and then he jumped in front of the net and got it back. So I’d been trapped and of course Bobby Orr was Bobby Orr and he was special and when he got that puck he made no mistake and it was all over. And I remember big (Noel) Picard, when he knew the puck was in the net when he tripped him but, it was too little too late.  It was a great thing for Boston, it was a tough pill for our team to swallow, but we knew we played hard, we played well. We probably got everything we had out of that team.

1998 NCAA Final, Michigan vs Boston College
“Well, I knew they had the better team on paper. And Jerry York’s team, right there. But I also knew that we had won it two years previous in 1996, and we had a group back, we still had two classes. But we had a big freshman class. In 1997 we were arguably the best team in the country and BU knocked us off, and then North Dakota beat them to win it all. But we were far and away the best team all year and got upset in 1997. We lost a big class, like Brendan Morrison and (Jason) Botterill and John Madden all those guys graduated. But we still had our goalie Marty Turco. And when we went into that game in the Fleet Center, I think we beat New Hampshire to get into that game, we knew were a good team, and had a lot of young guys that weren’t worried about anything, they just wanted to play and have fun.

“As the game wore on, it became a man’s game, really physical. And they were coming at us hard, and Turco was the difference, he definitely was the difference. I think the score ended up 3-2 in our favor, and all three of our goals were scored by freshmen. Josh Langfeld ended up scoring the winning goal. He had a short career in the NHL, and it was a bad angle goal, but you never know about overtime goals, and I think it was in the second overtime. But I remember they hit the crossbar, they hit the post, and Turco stood on his head, and we were playing 4 defensemen most of the game because a couple of our D were hurt. And we had a couple of young guys that we were afraid to play in that game. So it was really a challenge for our team. And I said after the game, ‘The best team doesn’t always win.’ I said that out of respect to Boston College because they were the best team. But the best team doesn’t always win in those games.”

Farewell to a Giant?
The next NCAA tournament, Berenson’s Wolverines were back in Mass., at the old Worcester Centrum for the East Regionals. After a dramatic comeback over Denver the night before, the reign of the champs was ended by top seeded in UNH in overtime. The great man in the signature brush cut and navy suit moved slowly through the handshake line, appearing inconsolable. He’s had some terribly close calls since, but never another ring. Fewer and fewer of his Wolverines stay on campus for extended careers, many treating his beloved University as a mere stepping stone to the NHL. These last two years he has attended the funerals of two of his best friends from the St. Louis Blues, Jimmy Roberts and Al Arbour. As time marches on, the pain of losses always outweighs the joy of victory. He does not hide the fact that this is the last year of his coaching contract. Yet this man who often appears austere to outsiders is both warm and generous to his hockey fraternity.

“Well he’s meant an awful lot to me,” said BU coach David Quinn during the recent Michigan series. “I remember when I applied for my first head coaching job and I asked him if he wouldn’t mind to write a letter of recommendation and use him as a reference. He said ‘A letter of recommendation? Give me the A.D.’s number, I’ll call him right now!He’s been incredible for college hockey, he had an incredible playing career, an incredible coaching career, he looks like he’s 46 instead of 76, he’s sharp as a tack. You know it’s special for me to be able to coach against him. It’s a guy that’s really raised the bar in the college coaching world.”

This hockey giant still gives heart and soul to every coaching encounter. In what may have been his last trip to Boston, he was the first onto the Peter Pan bus at the Agganis loading dock for the quick trip to Logan Airport. He sat up front, across from the driver, hands on knees, eyes fixed, anticipating his next encounter on a hockey journey for the ages.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Little Big Men

Going into this weekend, Sam Anas had scored one more goal than Johnny Hockey through 89 Career NCAA Games. Anas was shut down by Clarkson and St. Lawrence in career games 90 and 91, while Gaudreau connected twice in his 91st game vs U.Mass back in 2013. The chase of the legendary little man continues Friday when Anas get his shot at the Minutemen, two years later. 

         Tale of the Tape

GAUDREAU                       ANAS

5'9"                   Height              5'8"

157 lbs             Weight             160 lbs

54              Goals (91 GMS)     53

22 yrs               Age                  22 yrs

Vesey and Co. Return to South Bend

Crimson Trio Criscuolo, Vesey and Kerfoot, "All for One" (Michael Ledecky, Harvard Crimson)

Harvard’s intrepid hockey journalist Mike Ledecky snapped this singular moment in time, March 21, 2015, from the Olympic sheet in Lake Placid. Harvard hockey’s greatest troika since the famed “Commuter Line” of the 1970’s is portrayed basking in pure tournament glory, as Kyle Criscuolo, Jimmy Vesey and Alexander Kerfoot huddle around the coveted Whitelaw trophy as newly crowned ECAC Hockey champions. Having just slayed the dragon represented by the Yale Bulldogs six days prior, this trio gleams with possibility. If they continue their magical ride, two more wins would bring them back to Boston Garden and a neighborhood Frozen Four. The next week, however, brought heartbreak instead.

Crippled by a brutal opening period, The Crimson were felled in the NCAA’s opening round by Omaha and their white-hot goalie Ryan Massa out in South Bend, Indiana, crushing the heady dreams of these three sportsmen in single elimination. A new season has allowed their wounds to heal, and the Crimson are back in the national polls once again as contenders. With Captains Vesey and Criscuolo flanking speedy centerman Alex Kerfoot yet again, this top unit is tearing up Division I competition at an eye-popping four points per game clip. With irony lost on no one, the schedule makers have given the Crimson a painful reminder--a trip back to Notre Dame’s Compton Family Ice Arena, the venue of last season’s NCAA burial.

Moments after shutting out Princeton last week, two-year captain Criscuolo spoke about his club’s return to the scene of the crime. “We have some unfinished business out there. We’re definitely looking forward to getting back to South Bend.” Eight months ago they were on an NCAA private jet soaring directly into South Bend. Maybe the thin air of playing on the national hockey stage caused them to stumble out of the gate. “It was a new experience for us as a team,” said Kerfoot before practice last week. “We were a young group and even if guys don’t admit that they were nervous, we definitely came out and started like that.” It was a nightmarish opening stanza for the Crimson in their first NCAA hockey match since 2006. Omaha scored in the opening two minutes, and then in the final two seconds to put Harvard in a hole from which they could not escape. “We didn’t have a good start in that game and I think that ultimately cost us the game and cost us our season,” said Vesey. “We thought that we had a team that very easily could have been in the Frozen Four.” Vesey and company staged a furious onslaught in the third period, tilting the ice against the Mavericks with a 19-6 shot advantage. Vesey solved Massa early to cut the lead to 2-1, but that was as close as they got, before Omaha hammered two empty-net nails into the Crimson coffin to close out their season 4-1. Massa and his Mavericks went on the Frozen Four, while Harvard’s magic ride came to a crashing halt, resulting in red-rimmed eyes and choked up sound bites from the bowels of Compton Arena.

“Everyone in the locker room was very emotional after that game, I think especially, for the seniors,” said Kerfoot. “Knowing they would never put on the Harvard jersey again, when it finally hits you that they’re not going to be with you any more, and that’s our last game as a team, it’s kind of tough to handle.” Vesey, who was dragged out of the morgue-like room to face the national media mere minutes after the final horn, epitomized the teary pathos from that dark night in South Bend. But he and his mates have gained from that trial. “It was definitely emotional, but playing in those big games has made us more ready for this year to make a run. I think we’re a stronger team because of that experience.”

Vesey chose to forego a lucrative professional contract to stay in Cambridge for his senior year, earning a ‘C’ on his shoulder to join linemate Criscuolo as one of Harvard’s two designated leaders. Vesey’s sense of obligation to his club includes the pressure to generate scoring early and often. “We’re the first line, and we’re looked at to carry the offensive load, and I think we embrace that. Coach plays us in all the big situations. We start most games and most periods, and I think that if we go out and have a really good momentum shift, then it rubs off on the rest of the team.” The trio has amassed 10 goals and 24 points already, whether they are wearing capes or hard hats.

The night after suffering their first loss to powerhouse Quinnipiac last week, Vesey and company found themselves facing another brilliant goalie in Princeton’s Colton Phinney. This time brought their lunch pails to work, as Vesey solved Phinney barely five minutes into the game, and his trio wore down the Tigers with their relentless cycling. “I think we stopped trying to make too many plays in the neutral zone and just got it down low and started to play the way we were playing last year,” said Criscuolo after the game. He emphasized how they needed to “Play below the circles because ECAC hockey you got to play down low.” Coach Ted Donato acknowledged the efforts of his top unit in their surgical 3-0 win at Hobey Baker Rink last Saturday. “I thought our first line really led the charge for us, setting the tone. I think that as skilled as those guys are, they find their success when they use that skill with their work ethic.”

With a weekend off and sitting on a 4-1-1 record, Harvard now returns to South Bend, the scene of all that sports pathos eight months ago. Criscuolo’s talk of unfinished business resonates. “Obviously that’s where our season ended last year,” said Vesey. “We were left with a bitter taste in our mouth the last time we played there, so we definitely want to have a better showing.” “It will be some emotions going back there,” said Kerfoot, “but we’re not playing against Omaha, we’re playing against Notre Dame, it will be different, but it will be fun.”

For Vesey, this trip represents more than just unfinished business; he sees it as a building block for Harvard’s new title aspirations. “We’re in three tournaments this year: next weekend at Notre Dame, then we play New Year’s at Minnesota, and then obviously the Beanpot, and we want to win as many of those as we can. We think that playing in those tournaments is going to get us ready for the stretch run in the spring.” The Crimson will have their NCAA tourney game face strapped on for this early Holiday tourney, as the country’s best line looks to strike Notre Dame early and often. The Irish might not know what hit them.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Holy Buckets What a Goal!

This is sport at its absolute finest. NoDak's Nick Schmaltz starts and finishes a 5-pass sequence, all in the attacking zone, for the mind blowing goal vs Miami. Check out the celebration, every player is in ecstasy, and no wonder, they were involved in a special kind of time and space magic that is unique to hockey. All four players who touched that puck deserve an ESPY: Schmaltz to Brock Boesser to Drake Caggiula to Troy Stecher to Boesser (again) to Schmaltz for the perfect finish. Congratulations boys, the famed Green Unit of the Russian Red Army has just been topped by college kids for the first time since 1980 in Lake Placid.    

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Sam Anas: Little Big Man Hits 50

Little Big Man Notches # 50
On Friday the 13th of November, Quinnipiac junior Sam Anas scored his 50th NCAA goal, a 15' wrist shot into the top shelf, a signature goal. It took half a period before the Quinnipiac Jumbotron acknowledged the milestone during the Bobcats 4-1 win over Harvard. Coach Pecknold needs prodding to praise his 5' 8" sniper, though Anas has scored goals at a higher clip than Johnny Gaudreau through their first two years in college, and has reached 50 career goals much faster than Jimmy Vesey. Last year Anas finished his season on a devastating scoring clip, racking up goals in 5 consecutive games during the finals stages of the season, including a dramatic GWG to help knock out defending champion Union in the ECAC quarterfinals. But a nasty collision in the late stages of that series blew out his knee. He had to watch his Quinnipiac teammates concede the ECAC Championship tournament to Harvard from the stands in Lake Placid before limping through the Bobcats' NCAA elimination at the hands of North Dakota. A healthy Anas has since returned to the lineup and is scoring at his regular clip for the Bobcats. His 50th career goal helped the Bobcats to their first ever 9-0 start to the season We caught up with Anas the night he reached his magical milestone in Hamden.

RinkRap: Was it kind of appropriate that Landon set you up for magic #50?

Anas: Yeah, it;s been fun playing with him for the last two years. Obviously it's an individual accomplishment, but there's so many guys that have helped me get there along the way. Whether it's Matthew Peca, Travis St. Denis, the Jones twins, it goes down as an individual thing but its'a team thing. I have a lot of guys to thank for helping me get there.

RinkRap: Sam, last time Quinnipiac played Harvard, you were in the upper deck of the 1980 rink, was there any added incentive to get back out there?

Anas: I don't think individually; as a team we knew that Harvard ended our chances at the Whitelaw (ECAC tournament championship trophy). It's one thing that was shown this year was the picture of Harvard's championship, so that was a little fuel to the fire this week. It felt good to get the win.

RinkRap: Was it frustrating to be in the stands last year?

Anas: Yeah. I think any time you are in the stands, whether you are injured or not, and see your team lose, especially in the playoffs is tough, but that's just the way it goes. 

RinkRap: How have you changed over your three years? You look like you play a heavier game, but describe it yourself if you don't mind.

Anas: I try to do a lot more. Obviously my freshman year I was playing with the Jones twins and they were always running and gunning. I kind of try and take a little bit more of a role like that now, trying to set an example for younger guys. I try and play an honest game, play physical when I can, I'm not the biggest guy, but I know sometimes it helps. I'm trying to get better defensively and hopefully keep scoring some goals and setting up my linemates when I can.

RinkRap: You do look bigger. You're a heavier player aren't you?

Anas: Yeah, I've gained about 15 pounds since my freshman year. So definitely that weight room in there has been a big factor for me, and our strength coach, coach "P" (Brijesh Patel) has been awesome and he's really helped me out.

(Final question of the night from Quiinipiac Student media) What's it like to be on a team that has such depth in scoring?

Anas: It's awesome. For me it's fun to score goals, but winning trumps scoring. If I'm not scoring and we're winning, I'm happier than if I'm scoring and we're not winning. It's great to have secondary scoring, it's awesome to see those guys scoring goals and everyone's having fun. 

Friday, November 13, 2015

Charlie Morrison, Union Coaching Icon

Charlie Says: I'm going to the NCAA's with or Without You
The Union College pantheon of hockey coaches is a Who’s Who in the industry: Nate Leaman, Rick Bennett, Kevin Sneddon and Ned Harkness just to name a few. But none of those luminaries were as dedicated as Union Hall of Fame inductee Charlie Morrison, the man who died on the job.

It was impossible to play for Charlie without being changed by him, almost always for the better. I think he took special delight in having privileged prep school kids knock the tar out of each other, to harden them for future battles. Although I played at Lake Forest College, I am a first cousin to all who played for Charlie at Union.

Dennis Baldwin (Union ’91) will never forget his initiation to old-time hockey in a December 9, 1987 game up in Plattsburgh. “Nellie and Teemer started a bench clearing brawl in warmups,” writes Dennis. “As a freshman prep school kid I had never seen anything like it. We expected Charlie to be ticked off when he came into the locker room. Instead, he came in, looked at us sternly for minute, and then cracked a grin and said something like ‘Way not to take any crap out there, now go out and play some hockey.’ We were 1-7 at the time and we went out and tied the defending DIII Champs that night.”

There is an expression I have come to appreciate in middle age, “Taking the hard way makes life easier.” I think Charlie embodied that, and he certainly instilled it into his athletes. It was undeniable that Charlie was in severe pain throughout his final year coaching, but he was stoic throughout. “Once as I came across him walking around the rink, he fell,” writes Brian Lucey (Union ’91). “Unsure what to do, I reached down to assist him but he angrily waived me off as he reached up the boards and pulled himself up.”  Stoic, indeed. Division I coaches Dan Fridgen and Mark Morris have shared stories about how damn tough Charlie was in his final years, suffering profusely on recruiting trips, and finally dying on the job in an Ottawa hotel room. There is dedication, and then there is Charlie.

He would not hesitate to punish his players, knowing that it would steel us for the grueling games to come. Several of his Union players have detailed his harrowing side board sprints for any missed shot or pass, each subsequent set of side boards one increment greater than the previous one. A late practice screwup resulted in as many as eight or nine punishing sets, causing the team to turn on one another. “The wrath of your teammates was immediate, caustic, and sometimes physical,” writes Lucey. At Lake Forest, Charlie instilled a habit of all out hitting in each practice. “You’ve got to bruise the body boys,” was his mantra. “If you don’t hit in practice, you won’t hit in games.” A former prep school teammate visited me during tryouts, and was shocked at the ultra-violent scrimmages. Toughening up young men was Charlie’s mission, creating Spartans for the big tests ahead.

While researching this piece I noticed one amazing stat that connects Union and Lake Forest because of Charlie. Exactly five years after arriving at Lake Forest, Charlie led his squad to the first Division II NCAA hockey championship in history, where we got waxed in the final. The very next year, Charlie began another journey with Union, leading the Dutchmen to history’s first NCAA Division III hockey championship, also in five years, also getting waxed in the final. I’m guessing that both those teams allowed themselves to exhale after finally getting to their respective championship game, knowing they had reached their destination and the whipping was over.

Why is it that when Charlie gave us a rare glimpse of his humanity, we all remember it for eternity?  T.J. Ryan (Union '85) writes: “Before the first period started at Oswego, it took Charlie a lengthy time to reach the bench. An overzealous Oswego fan that had been giving Charlie grief from behind the glass, pulled himself up and screamed at the top of his lungs: ‘NICE F***ING TIE SONNY BONO!’ Of course Charlie had a wide bottom striped monster tie on—one of his favorites. He looked at me with a big smile and said, ‘That was a good one.’” 

Charlie abandoned Lake Forest for Union mere months after our mind-blowing run through the NCAA’s, leaving us truly blown away, his loss creating an enormous vacuum. He was replaced by a future Hall of Famer in his own right, Tony Fritz, a man all charm and smiles, who put an immediate end to hitting in practice. We became massive underachievers without Charlie to prod us.

Why do we love stern coaches like Charlie? Is it because he was so consistent and straight shooting? Is it because we know we need the discipline to be our best? I think the answer lies in team sports, and how a truly tough S.O.B. will eliminate the cancerous individualism that can ruin a team. I’m sure both of Charlie’s NCAA finalists did not have any preening poodles on their respective rosters. Most of you have seen the movie Miracle, and the hard line tactics of Herb Brooks. Jay Grossman (Union ’87) has worked for both men, and knows that they are cut from the same cloth.

As a television producer, I came to Union to produce the first major broadcast out of Achilles Rink back in 1996. I relied on venerable sports information director George Cuttita for logistical help, and when I discovered that he was a dear friend of Charlie’s, I asked him to write the copy for a Charlie obit that aired in the second intermission. That original text is now on a plaque outside the SID offices. 

Charlie Morrison: 
A family man, an educator a coach and friend. He is best remembered for the 3 priorities in which he believed: Family, Schoolwork and Union College Hockey. Charlie’s spirit lives on in those who wear the Skating Dutchmen Uniform…Past, present and future.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Matty Gryz Returns for the Showdown

Tale of Two Banners
Back on October 17, BU Hockey raised five prestigious banners to commemorate the amazing Jack Eichel era of 2014-15: Hobey Baker Award, Beanpot Championship, Hockey East regular season and playoff titles, and the kelly green 2015 Frozen Four banner for reaching the NCAA Finals. 10 days later, this year's version of BU hockey hit rock bottom, getting swarmed by an ordinary UConn squad 5-2, the Terrier defense in tatters after surrendering four power play goals. "That game at UConn was as bad a game as we've played in two years," said Quinn on BU's Internet coach's show. "We made a mistake and it's 'Close your eyes and hide the women and children!'" Three nights later the Terriers suffered a tight loss to Merrimack and saw their record drop below .500. Bad news was piling up: their top two goalies had been shellacked on consecutive games; their top returning goal scorer Ahti Oksanen had been shut out all year; their #8 national ranking was a mirage. Rock Bottom, indeed.

Gut check for Quinn's Terriers (Courtesy USCHO)
Missing from last year's Frozen Four squad was the nation's leading scorer (Eichel), their premier goalie (Matt O'Connor), and their All-American defenseman Matt Grzelcyk, temporarily sidelined due to off season ACL surgery. Being a captain and watching from the stands as your team struggles on the ice is more painful than a swollen knee. "You want to be contributing to your teammates," said Grzelcyk. "You never want to be sitting on the sidelines."

Saddled with a roster full of freshmen and two shaky goalies, Coach Quinn embraced the challenge of righting his ship without his best defenseman. "If you want to win championships, there's a certain level of physicality you have to have. I don't care how talented you are, you just have to have it. We didn't have it for a while."

Despite the loss to Merrimack on October 30, his squad actually played with some vital desperation, valiantly fighting back from a two-goal deficit and nearly doing it a second time before dropping a hard-fought 4-3 decision. Choosing the right goaltender is often a coach's biggest and most difficult challenge. After BU senior Sean Maguire gave up his fourth goal late in the second period against Merrimack, Quinn's only alternative was Connor LaCouvee, the same goalie who was torched by UConn for five goals earlier that week. Quinn chose to bring in LaCouvee, and the sophomore
Soph Stopper LaCouvee
delivered, stopping every shot he faced in the losing cause at Merrimack. It was a game filled with positive indicators for BU, including the snakebit sniper Oksanen. Despite failing to score, he led the team with 6 shots on goal and seemed destined to bust out. Quinn might have solved his goaltending crisis as well, with Lacouvee becoming a mainstay in the BU nets since coming on in relief. Standing tall against a relentless third period onslaught from #5 Denver the next night, LaCouvee led the Terriers  to a vital OT thriller on Halloween, earning some hard-earned praise from Quinn. "He was immense
in the penalty kill." The Terriers played tough, sacrificed bodies, and beat a national contender in overtime. The emotional game-winning goal, his second tally of the night, came from the rejuvenated Oksanen. "I knew once he got one, they were going to start going in, and that's what happened."
Quinn, who was seen exiting the UConn game with his head hanging to his chest, sounded like a man with a new lease on life after surviving the pot-holed path through October. "I loved how we bounced back, I really thought we got back to playing with grit up at Merrimack." Having checked off two vital bullets on his punch list--goaltender and goal scorer--there was one final item to seal up before his squad was complete.

Quinn broke the story to the Boston media a day prior to the Northeastern series: BU Captain Grzelcyk would be available for that weekend, the news coming at least a week ahead of its expected delivery. "I talked to the doctors, the training staff and coach, I felt ready to go so they gave me the green light," said the man known as Gryz, the obvious key to BU's chances to be a title contender yet again. "When you're adding arguably the best defenseman in the country to your lineup, it's going to make an impact," said Quinn.
Terrier Lynchpin Matt Grzelcyk
Gryz was impossible to contain against Northeastern this past weekend, scoring in both games, running a crisp power play, and beating the forecheck with his legs and his smarts. Dave Starman, the top college hockey analyst in American TV, was scouting the Terriers Saturday. "He brings poise, he brings confidence, and much like (Kevin) Shattenkirk, he can be a one-man breakout," said Starman. "Remember in the old days, when you put a bunch of 6'4" cementheads on the ice, everybody felt bigger? In this day and age guys like Grzelcyk make you feel bigger. They make you feel faster, they make more feel more confident."

Gryz provided vital tonic to the Terriers in their weekend sweep of the cross town Huskies, wristing home BU's first goal in his debut Friday, and then setting up Oksanen for the game-winning goal with a beautiful cross ice feed in the third. The big Finn is in top form now, having scored game winning goals in consecutive games against Merrimack and Northeastern on Friday. But it was the opening minutes of Saturday's game in which Grzelcyk answered any lingering questions about the status of his jets. With trusted centerman Danny O'Regan leading a charge through center ice while a man up, Gryz spotted an open lane down the left wing and stomped his foot on the gas. "Our power play rush was really good," said Quinn. "We attacked with speed, and Grizzy's got that world class skating ability." Grzleck streaked down the wing, got a pass at full speed, and fired in the opening goal without breaking stride. It was college hockey's answer to the beautiful game played at fever pitch, the high speed play remaining onside only because of the trust between passer and receiver. "Danny's a really smart player, and we read off each other so well," said Gryz of O'Regan. "I kinda had an idea that he was gonna throw it at me and he made a great pass. I saw a little room short side and I went there." This was the signature moment in what was arguably the best period in Quinn's coaching career at BU: the Terriers held Northeastern shotless for the first 16 minutes, finishing with an 18-2 shot advantage for the opening stanza. The final score was 4-1 and Quinn had but one solitary complaint after their four-point weekend. "It's ridiculous that we gave up a short-handed goal with a minute to go. It cost Connor the shutout, that's really unfortunate."

A single blemish in their last game before BU's monster mid-term exam: a home-and-home rematch with the reigning NCAA champs, #1 ranked Providence College. This is the team that crushed their dreams in excruciating fashion last April, staging a third period comeback that won't be forgotten this lifetime. Would there be any challenge motivating the Terriers for this revenge match? "Absolutely not," said the captain. "We try to put it past us, but it was the national championship game. They got off to a great start this season, so we have every reason to feel motivated to go into their building Friday night. We've really grown the past few games; I think losing to UConn was an eye opener."

We asked Starman for an honest assessment: Can BU compete for national glory this year? "They are the fastest team I've seen so far, I think they're really skilled," said Starman. "The question is, do they get the same thing in goal as they did last year?" Quinn appears to have put his faith in goaltender LaCouvee, keeping him in Friday's game despite coughing up four goals in the second period. "I felt like he just keeps getting better," he said Saturday, answering the question as to why he gave LaCouvee the game 2 start versus Northeastern. "He had two great third periods, against Denver and Northeastern last night. I just felt like he earned it."

We caught up with Lacouvee after his stellar performance Saturday, confidently holding court with the BU student media, his save percentage inching up towards respectability. "We were kind of struggling a bit at the beginning there, and it's nice to string together a couple of wins, get the guys rolling and have some confidence. We got a big weekend coming up, so its nice to keep that streak alive."

A big weekend for sure, starting Friday night in Providence. This is the game hockey fans have circled on their calendars since the schedule came out, BU at PC, a rematch of the most dramatic hockey title bout in recent memory. Does Quinn's revived squad have the maturity to compete with the champs playing at home under their own championship banner? Will LaCouvee wilt or thrive under the hot lights? For fans who can't wedge their way into Schneider Arena Friday night, the game will air nationally at 6 pm Eastern time on American Sports Network (Ch 628 on DIRECTV). This, my hockey friends, is the epitome of appointment viewing.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Beanpot Bonanza Weekend Part I

With all four Beanpot teams on Boston ice this weekend, finding entertainment for my Michigan billet visiting for 72 hours would be a snap. Three classic venues on consecutive days filled with unsung heroes, freshmen phenoms, veteran stars sharing good times and bad, and a healthy dose of Kubrickian ultra-violence at the Jesuit school to cap the weekend. What's not to like?

Act I: Yale at Harvard, Clash of the Ancient Eight
Rob O'Gara: Speak Softly and Carry a Long Stick

Jimmy V: Mr. Goal a Game

The compressed hockey weekend began Friday night with the 250th meeting of ancient rivals Harvard and Yale, a love-hate fest that began 115 years ago. Those numbers are simply too mind-boggling to digest in this space now. In terms of current relevance, this game was essentially a resumption of their riveting ECAC playoff quarterfinal from last March, only the venue had moved from New Haven to the Bright-Landry Hockey Center down by the River Charles. From our borrowed flat in Cambridge, my partner and I got to jog along the dirty water to this tilt and then braved the Anderson Bridge construction, crowded with the nation's best and brightest striding to this tasty early season showdown. College Hockey, Inc. billed this game as another chapter in the clash of senior All-Americans Jimmy Vesey (H) and Rob O'Gara (Y), the premier irresistible force and immovable object (respectively) of college hockey. But on this night of excellence, new names stole the spotlight. Scribes in the press balcony were heard uttering that this was a legitimate national championship preview. The secured press box included both Eastern hockey commissioners Joe Bertagna and Steve Hagwell, in addition to former Yale puckster John Kerry. Kerry's hockey affiliation trumped his Secretary of State status on this riveting night.

Harvard threatened to run Yale out of the building in the first period, shuttling the equivalent of three first lines of high octane offense at Yale, generating 18 shots and numerous grade-A chances. But Yale's All-American goaltender Alex Lyon stoned the Crimson like he did so frequently last season. Then a miniscule freshman in blue and white killed the local buzz with a goalmouth backhand off a turnover halfway through the game. Joe Snively potted his third goal in two games, a veritable plethora of offense for the defense-first Bulldogs. After stifling a Harvard power play early in the second period Yale had snatched the momentum, and began to apply its anaconda-like defensive suffocation on Harvard, starting to dominate this 1-1 game. That is until an ill-timed line shift created a numerical advantage for Harvard just inside their offensive blue line, allowing junior Luke Esposito room to crank up a full windup slapper from the top of the left circle. He blasted the puck past Lyon to ignite the sellout crowd, leaving the game tied after two periods.

Power Schmoozing at the Landry-Bright Center
Bill Cleary Stands alone among Harvard Greats
The wide concourses at Harvard are conducive to the art of the hockey schmooze, and there was no shortage of subjects this night. 80 year old Harvard hockey legend Bill Cleary was in classic form, regaling my billet with his full repertoire of nose flicks, sleight of hand shakes and deftness with his dentures. His face bore the same shade of crimson as the banner carrying his #4 hanging over the rink's west end zone. Cleary is the only sports figure to have a number retired in the history of Harvard. His heroics on the ice, including a season in which he averaged 4 points a game, and having coached Harvard to its only hockey national championship, makes his banner a no-brainer. Despite suffering the recent loss of younger brother Bob and enduring his own battle with skin cancer, Cleary remains a delightful life force on full throttle. After a polite exit we made the first turn around the concourse where we found former Olympic coach Ben Smith, currently in the role of personnel evaluator for USA Hockey's World Junior squad. Smith will be ubiquitous in New England NCAA rinks from now until mid-December as he stores information on all the World Junior candidates. He is the man who last year advocated for previously unknown prep schooler Miles Wood to make Team USA, and Wood is now playing a leading role for BC as a freshman. "He's the best player in college hockey," said Smith. "He could dress for the Bruins tomorrow." Nodding vigorously, we kept pushing along until we bumped into Nashville Predators assistant GM Paul Fenton, a Massachusetts native back in Boston to track prized draft pick Vesey. Despite Vesey's uncharacteristically quiet night offensively, Fenton continued to gush. "He'll be our trade deadline acquistion," said Fenton, counting on Vesey to honor his statement that he will join the Preds in March for their Stanley Cup push, as soon as he completes his final Harvard campaign. Fenton has spent so much time watching Harvard the past three years that he simply couldn't ignore the mad skills of Crimson junior Tyler Moy. He is a San Diego native that has cultivated his 21st century dangling magic from relentless practice and emulation of today's NHL greats via YouTube. Fenton's Preds snagged Moy last summer in the 6th round, an outright steal.

The Gripping Conclusion
Moy's spirited play with linemate Esposito earned them both first-line minutes in this gripping battle that was still tied with six minutes to play. Espo, the ferocious little nephew of Mark Messier, was outmanned in a scrum against the wall with Yalies O'Gara and Ryan Hitchcock in Harvard's attacking zone. He managed to wrest the puck from O'Gara and heard Moy calling for it as he sliced through a tight seam. Espo delivered the goods to Moy in stride, and the junior had the game on his stick, 10 feet from Lyon's net. Moy snapped his shot by the helpless kicker, igniting the crowd into a
Moy Wonder (Courtesy ECAC
Crimson delirium, as Harvard took the lead with just over five minutes to play. "Espo can see the ice and moves the puck really well, we had a little give and go there on the goal," said Moy post game, his grin appropriate for a guy who delivered the go-ahead goal in front of a passion-struck standing room crowd. "Obviously it's one of the best feelings. A lot of people play the game because of that. Yeah, especially against a team like Yale."

But the Bulldogs simply wouldn't go away, pressing the issue with 14 shots in the final stanza. With :40 seconds remaining, junior power forward John Hayden took a rare draw, and followed the
Little Big Man Joe Snively
bouncing black bar of soap behind the Harvard net. He manhandled two defenders, corraling the puck before sliding it diagonally through the crease onto the tape of Snively, where he one-timed a tying goal that felt a lot like the game winner. Little Joe was the only player who managed a shot in the scoreless overtime, and the normally dour Yale coach Keith Allain was practically giddy listing the kid's skill sets. "He's smart, quick, skilled and cool in the big moments. I think he's going to be a nice player." The guy who did the heavy lifting on the goal, 6'3" 210 lb. Blackhawks prospect Hayden, loved getting the rookie involved in such an important situation. "It's pretty special to see a freshman come in and contribute right away. Obviously Snives is a great player, and it showed in the first three games." This is a season of redemption for Hayden, who suffered from the proverbial World Junior hangover last season." Last year was a grind when I didn't have a break over Christmas," said Hayden outside his locker room. "I think I burned out at the end. I've
Hayden: Comeback Kid?
started to respect the necessity of rest and recovery, it's helped me so far." Snively was entirely matter-of-fact when he faced the fawning press, yet he became much more animated in his description of Hayden's clutch play. "It was an amazing pass, Hayds came around the net and made a great play. I knew he was going to come around the net, I knew the puck would come out. He put it right on the tape, I couldn't ask for a better pass. I had the whole net to shoot at."

The two heroes for their respective teams, the ebullient Moy of Harvard and the deadpan Yale freshman Snively, both embody their hockey institution. Harvard, the offensive circus with three first lines, overflows with puck love; Yale, austere and defensive, has found an undersized yet elite scorer who celebrates in monotone. Both squads left the rink undefeated Friday night, soon to climb in the national rankings. They are the Athens and Sparta of the Ivy League City-States, guaranteed to meet once again in New Haven in mid winter. Perhaps they are destined for a second straight high-stakes clash in the post-season? That may depend on the prophesy of the Oracles.

Side Bar: Harvard and Yale Freshmen with Souls.
Mane Man Piotrowksi
Donato Digs Deep

The unseemly Jeremy Bracco affair may have tarnished the perception of selfish teens on the hockey fast track, but the stories of two remarkable freshmen from Friday's game, one from Harvard, one from Yale, might restore your faith in hockey millennials. Yale freshman forward JM Piotrowski has a bright orange mane emerging from his helmet that would make snowboarder Shaun White green with envy. JM is not seeking personal recognition on a veteran Yale club seeking another NCAA title. He is, however, bringing attention to a much worthier cause. Thanks to Yale SID Steve Conn, we have learned that Piotrowski is cultivating his foot-long braid for Locks of Love, the organization that provides wigs for those suffering from medical-related hair loss. Piotrowski has had three aunts who suffered from breast cancer, one who passed away. The Texas native estimates that he needs to grow his hair out another inch before hitting the required length, and then plans on cutting his neon locks at the end of the season....Unlike Piotrowski, the hockey world has long known about elite point-producer Ryan Donato, the son of Harvard coach Teddy. During Friday's first intermission in Cambridge, 70 year old David O'Connor was outside grabbing a smoke. Now aided by a cane and slowed by 50 extra pounds, O'Connor moves a lot slower than when he was a ticket taker for Harvard hockey games a generation ago. O'Connor happens to be a neighbor of the Donato clan down in Scituate, part of metro Boston's south shore. Between puffs, he shared this story unsolicited. "That big snow last year, the electricity went out and people were going to the school to stay warm. And I'm thinking 'How am I gonna get over there with all this snow?' I look out, and there's this kid, Donato, shoveling my driveway. I didn't even asked him." O'Connor crushed out his butt while balancing himself carefully with the aid of his cane. "He's the kind of kid that gets up and goes to church, even when his mom and dad don't go."

(Editor's note: Act II of the Weekend Trilogy, BU vs Northeastern, follows next on RinkRap)